IRVING, Texas -- Throughout the Dallas Cowboys’ season, Tony Romo was often asked to reflect on what he was able to do.
He never took a big picture view, saying the timing wasn’t right, that the focus was on that week’s opponent or that day’s practice.
The end of Dallas' season wasn't even two weeks old, and as he stood outside one of the team buses after a Pro Bowl practice in Glendale, Arizona, Romo’s big picture view wasn’t about his season. He did not discuss his comeback from major back surgery to lead the NFL in passer rating, Total QBR and completion percentage. He didn’t go on about the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career.
He didn’t thumb his nose at critics who wondered if he would ever rid himself of mistakes in big games or those who scoffed when he said in training camp his best football was ahead of him.
“Ultimately, I feel like we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do so it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Romo said. “I think you just figure out how you have to be better. I have to be better. Our team has to be better. And you have to go attack this thing with everything we got.”
On Tuesday night, sitting in the lobby at the Arizona Biltmore, Romo watched his fellow Pro Bowlers walk by. He was struck at how different it felt from his earlier trips. In his first Pro Bowl in 2006, he was the unknown kid who led the Cowboys to the playoffs. He had the world in front of him.
Now in his fourth Pro Bowl and five years removed from his most recent trip to the all-star game, his life has changed. He turns 35 in April. He is married and has two sons. He knows these moments don’t last forever.
The world may still be in front of him, but his view of it has changed.
“You want to keep constantly trying to figure out new ways to improve,” Romo said. “You’re never satisfied. Last year is not a satisfying feeling. If anything, it makes you more hungry to be better going forward so you have an opportunity to achieve all your goals. Ultimately we didn’t get that done and that just never sits well. I’m a firm believer that you have to start over and go do everything you did to be better the next season. You can’t just rest on anything you’ve done. It just doesn’t work that way.”
“I’m going to have to start over, tear it all down and figure out what I did well and work on the things I didn’t do as well and then go try and continue to perfect your craft to get to your highest level.”’
How does he improve on 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions? On completing 69.9 percent of his passes? On 8.5 yards per attempt?
The secret is in the dirt. It’s an old Ben Hogan saying and one Romo references often. It’s on the practice field or in the meeting room. It’s studying the tiniest of details from where he places his ring finger on the ball to how he slightly adjusts where he points his lead foot.
“If you’re not improving and getting better from year to year, if you don’t think you can try to figure out new ways to perfect your craft, I don’t understand how you can help your football team,” Romo said. “You’re going in the wrong direction, to me, if you don’t. You’ve got to figure out how you can be a better player. Each guy has to do that a little different and just think if our team takes that approach, we have a chance to be better.”
For the first time since 2012, Romo will be able to work on his craft in the offseason. In 2013, he had surgery to remove a cyst from his back and did not take part in organized team activities and the minicamp. In 2014, he was coming back from the discectomy that prevented him from playing in the winner-take-all finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.
It limited him in training camp. He never practiced more than two straight days. It limited him early in the season until the Cowboys’ athletic training staff formulated the ‘Romo Wednesday,’ in which he worked on his strength in his core and legs.
“It’s going to be a much better offseason on building in areas that I haven’t been able to in a couple of years,” Romo said. “I’ll always have to maintain a little bit of what I’ve been doing for my back. Strengthening the areas there, that’s the most important thing. I think what I’ve found is that you’ve got to attack the offseason, and you can do it in many different forms. I think it’ll be nice to attack some area that I haven’t been able to.”
He doesn’t want to say what areas he will attack. He prefers to keep that secret in the dirt to himself. He said the tear-down process will start in the middle of February.
“Right now you’re just trying to enjoy the Pro Bowl and family and things like that,” Romo said.
When the bus returned to the Biltmore, he was going to sit by the pool and relax with his family and teammates. The sun was out and everything was bright.
“Next season is a whole new season and we’ve got to tear it down and start all over again,” Romo said. “You’re guaranteed nothing. That’s the only way to be successful year to year. I think our team has an opportunity with a lot of the right people in place, and I’m excited about the challenge and excited about the ability to work and get after it.”